Why People Believe in Gods: Coincidence and the Workings of Chance

When I was driving east with my friend this summer, we began to have car problems. Such problems, as you know if you have experienced them, nearly always occur late in the evening and on a Saturday evening. As if to ensure the maximum amount of down time as well as the scarcity of open garages, they also tend to happen in remote areas.

In our case, the battery light—which typically indicates a problem with the alternator—came on while I was driving. My friend was sleeping at the time, and when she woke, she never thought to mention the light to me. The check engine light has long been a constant reminder on my dash and to the colour-visioned, the idea that I wouldn’t notice a red light on a bright day is difficult to remember. By the time she mentioned it to me, some twenty minutes had passed.

We kept driving while I pondered the implications of where we were, east of Sault Ste. Marie, and what towns might lay ahead of us. She scoured the internet for towns and I pulled over to disconnect the headlights. Even though it was growing darker in the evening, they were drawing too much power from the battery.

She found Espanola—which oddly is near Spanish—and began to look up what businesses were available. I didn’t remember much about the town, and wanted to ensure it had a large enough population to support garages that would be open on Sunday. We pulled into town, and got a room at the overpriced rundown Goodman’s hotel which was beside the highway. I mostly chose that one so that I could use the small hill outside the front door to get my car started in the morning, although once we were settled in I wished I would have spent more time looking at others.

I used the evening and the hotel Wi-Fi to research installing an alternator, and what options the town might provide the following day and slept uneasily as I winnowed through possibilities depending on what happened the next morning. Once we jumped the car on the hill and drove to the Canadian Tire store—which luckily was open on a Sunday—we found they didn’t have an alternator which would fit my car, if it was even that possible to install it on the roadside using my regular travel toolkit. The alternator in my Civic is located behind the engine and is flanked by the engine, firewall, master brake cylinder, suspension and drive train. It is famously difficult to replace. As well, I remembered removing alternators before and the through bolt on the base of the device were always a nightmare to shift from its sleeve.

I had planned for the warehouse’s small stock options, so I bought a car battery instead. My battery was old when I bought the car and I’d had it for seven years. It was already showing signs of weakening, and running the car from the battery for over an hour the day before would not help. As well, relying on two batteries meant that we could likely keep the car going for many kilometres without having to worry about it dying on the side of the road.

While buying the battery, I asked and found out that the Canadian Tire would charge our old battery for free. Therefore, while we sat outside the Tim Horton’s and my friend drank her coffee, our battery was being topped off and we were able to get back on the highway with two fully charged batteries.

Once we were in Sudbury, we had a decision to make. We bought an alternator that would fit my car, but there were few places open on the Sunday. With two batteries and an alternator to busy myself if we died on the side of the road and I felt up for trying to replace the dead one, I suggested that we might be able to get to Ottawa, where I could use my friend’s garage and install the alternator myself. As much as I wasn’t looking forward to the job, I am more confident about my bumbling attempts than the rough and ready work of mechanics along the road.

My friend was up for it, so with our batteries charged at the Canadian Tire, we left for Ottawa, some five hundred kilometres distant. That took us as far as North Bay, where we charged the old battery again, and swapped it with the new one. If any battery were going to be run completely dead, I wanted it to be the old one. A discharged battery has a difficult time recovering, and that can even ruin the battery.

The day grew hotter, and by late in the afternoon we swapped batteries again. By then a thunderstorm was threatening and it was growing dark. My lights were still disconnected, and I knew the wipers would take away what little power we had in the remaining battery, so while the raindrops were falling, I had my friend look up the address of someone I knew in Deep River. I had called her a week earlier to explain that we had little time and I would not be visiting like I sometimes would, and therefore she knew we would be in the area.

The next morning we took her advice and charged the battery at the garage she used regularly. While the mechanic took twenty minutes to tell me how he was so busy he couldn’t take the time to install my new alternator, the battery charged in the background. When he was finally ready to turn to his work, we walked downtown to the waterfront and wandered around the shops. When we returned, I put in the old battery, keeping the new one in reserve, and we set out to drive the last two hundred kilometres to Ottawa. The old battery worked well until the day became too hot. Then we had to swap out batteries because the radiator fan was coming on too often and draining power.

We were on the new battery and the car was beginning to falter while we were still a hundred kilometres from the city. As it misfired and sputtered, I left the highway at Goshen road, just before Arnprior. We drove down that road a kilometre or so, until I felt we were getting too far from the highway. Then we picked a wide driveway to park in the shade and let the car cool down. I lifted the hood and splashed water on the radiator but when I tried to start the car the battery would barely turn over the starter.

At about this time an older woman on her way to town exited the driveway. She stopped to ask if we needed help, and then told us that her son was a mechanic and he was home. Although a religious person would have thanked their gods for such good fortune, we walked up the driveway and talked to the man who agreed to install the battery. He wanted to bring my car into the yard with the forklift, but I would rather peer through the crack between the hood and the engine than risk damage to my undercarriage and exhaust with a poorly placed forklift. I borrowed a jumper pack and set it up on the windscreen while I drove into the yard with the hood up.

Once he started to work I began to appreciate how great a mechanic we had happened upon, and how difficult the job was. He used his acetylene torch and impact hammer on stubborn bolts, and removed the master cylinder to gain access to the alternator berth. Once he was finished, over an hour later, he suggested forty dollars for his time. That was much below what would normally be charged, and places in the city would have asked for over a hundred. I think he was responding to my old clothes, the old car, and our eagerness to get to Ottawa where I could do the job myself.  I gave him seventy, much to his surprise, and we were on our way again.

This seems like a longwinded way of talking about why some people would ascribe to gods what I would read as coincidence, but the background about the various car problems shows that the gods were nowhere to be seen when I was trying to find an open garage, a parts store which had an alternator for us, and a cooler day which would have meant we could have driven into Ottawa. Instead, the one striking coincidence was the mechanic right where and when we needed one.

Even that was not so much kismet as logic. He told me that people often break down at the entrance to his drive, and when I thought about how I had picked it, based on its width and careful maintenance, I wasn’t as surprised. Because he uses heavy equipment, he requires a wide driveway, and that is inviting when a car is dying. As well, although he is not right beside the highway, he is close enough that anyone who left the main road so they wouldn’t block traffic while pondering what was wrong with their vehicle, would find themselves not wanting to go too far into the hinterland.

For the one element in my story that went well, there were dozens that could have gone better, and although it is tempting to ascribe agency to the intemperate hand of fate, I think the notion that the gods play dice with human lives, rather like the Norse or Greek gods, likely better describes our experiences than the anxious mothering figure manipulating physical reality so that our lives might be easier. The god who plans ahead, sets up a mechanic at exactly the right spot in order that I might find one, is the same god who removed that mechanic from a thousand other drivers. He wasn’t where he needed to be, but instead, luckily, he was where we needed him, and given his willingness to help, and generosity, I’m sure he is where many others will call upon his help as well. We don’t need a capricious god to explain that, any more than we need one to explain the other elements of the car’s deterioration.

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Skyscrapers: from No Lions Anymore

When he first heard the expression for tall city buildings, he imagined they actually scraped the sky. In his childhood imagination he saw the final bricks—for he was used to building with interlocking blocks—fastened to the top and the last row brushing against the blue fabric of the universe. The sky would be scored in a long trail, which he imagined to resemble a black cloud, and the blue cloth that made up the sky would tumble down and be collected by those who lived in the city. They would make clothes from the cloth and wherever they traveled they would be recognized, the colour becoming their national dress.

Because he didn’t think he was lying, or even telling stories, he explained the inner workings of his world to other kids in school. They would rock on their heels, fascinated that such magic lay just beyond their hands, and for the rest of the day they would examine the downtown buildings for their tendency to peel back the fabric of existence. When they told the teacher, the stories ground to a halt, however.

He was taken aside and asked what he’d been saying, and when he confessed to the stories, they chastised him and said they would tell his parents. He wasn’t so much frightened by the prospect that his parents would be involved as he was the notion that he’d been wrong. He asked about skyscrapers and was told that they were merely tall buildings. Rather like Greenland was named for Icelandic misinformation—a kind of early false advertising—skyscrapers didn’t scrape the sky so much as they interfered with birds. Because they didn’t want the children worrying about birds, they went after something much closer to the Tower of Babel. The skyscrapers interfered with the sky itself, and people would stand in the street and stare upwards at the monstrous buildings allowed by physics, engineering and human pride.

As he grew older he lost both his fascination with the word as well as his respect for tall buildings. As far as he was concerned, they were just a way that the modern world wasted resources. The argument about building up instead of sideways, as a form of urban planning, was merely a cover for architectural marvels and testing the limits of human achievement. The end result was no more interesting than a termite mound. The newer and higher the skyscraper, the more his derision, and he’d even lost a job because he wouldn’t stop complaining about the building where they worked. The two tiered elevators were barely functional, he claimed, the building a firetrap in the case of an emergency, and the re-circulated air toxic with the outgassing from a hundred different foul-mouthed residents, as well as the many cleaning compounds and plastics used in the furnishings.

As if he were still in school, he was called into his supervisor’s office and asked about his animosity, but he had difficulty articulating his extreme distaste for a building that only existed so that people who were depressed might find an easily accessible escape route. “I have no respect for this type of building,” he’d started to explain.

“I don’t care.” His supervisor looked out the window and sighed. “That’s about it, really. I just don’t give a damn whether you like this building or not. This is where our company has chosen to locate. I didn’t make the decision, nor did any of the people you have complained to in the elevator. There is nothing we can do about it, and if you want to keep this job, you’ll stop telling your coworkers that buildings like this only exist to show off the architect’s erection, that they are suicide traps, or that they use more resources than they save.”

“They do.”

“No one cares. We have to work here. And if you don’t learn to put up with that, to face the cold hard reality of this building, then you won’t have that same worry.”

His boss had been explicit enough, and that should have sufficed. Instead, like many condemnations from the top, it merely drove the problem underground. He began to watch city disaster movies which involved buildings, and to forward memes which featured tall buildings being destroyed or even defaced. He had to get clever, he convinced himself, so he began to bring in rice with a single stalk of celery. He would stand the celery upright in the rice and nibble around the edges until the celery was eroded into strands like dental floss lying in a heap on the spongy rice. The people were like the grains of rice, he told his coworkers. They were weak and soft, and the collapsing building had crushed them like teeth.

Sadly, he needed his job, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. When he was called into the office again, his supervisor was even clearer. “I may have to let you go. What is it now, two written, and one formal verbal warning? And that’s after a dozen complaints and several honourable mentions. You’re out of hand.”

He was ready for him. “Trauma.”

“What?” The sinking look on the supervisor’s face told him he was on the right track.

“Maybe I should talk to HR. Get counseling. PTSD.”

His boss’ tone changed. “You’re responding to a traumatic incident?” His feet moved under the desk.

The air shifted. His eyes sought the floor in assumed shame. “I blame myself. I should have known it would resurface working in such a building. If I had known it would prove to be so difficult for my coworkers I wouldn’t have taken the job.” He risked a look.

“This is perhaps a conversation you should have with counseling services. I’m not trained.” The supervisor moved in his seat and his eyes were glued on the view.

“You’re right. I need to get help.” He stood up and saluted. “It’s not exactly like it’s the twin towers anyway.”

He’d learned in school to keep his touch light.

“Oh,” his supervisor glanced at him and quickly away. “I’ll make a call.”

Although the rest of the time he worked for that company he was treated like an invalid, he was able to say what he wanted about tall buildings. Somehow, however, that took a lot of the joy out of it. No longer were people listening to his arguments. Instead, they either focused on where they thought the arguments were coming from, or picked through his complaints as though they would be able to tell what his connection to the twin towers was.

Any more logical arguments against skyscrapers were as ephemeral as the dream he’d had a child about a blue-clothed people who lived near a torn sky. Gradually, even with HR, he learned to speak of different matters, and his coworkers sighed in relief that they’d saved another trauma victim by ignoring what they had to say.

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Even the Stars are a Mess

They were years of frustration, endless eons of disappointment spliced with rare bursts of pleasure, like the sudden explosion of a present for his birthday, or the sight of horses hanging their long heads over a fence, all in a row, as if they were expecting him. The boredom, the long days which passed like a leaf clutching desperately to a tree in the fall, the hours in which the sand through the hourglass was tumbling one grain at a time, minutes passing while the awkward grain dislodge and then fell. Chipped paint on the upper floor banister could painstakingly be removed, but only with the utmost effort, and before long he was caught and even that fleeting pleasure was hidden behind threats and injunctions.

He felt as if his life were a pebble dropped too close to the water and the pool never rippled. The sun angled across his bedroom when he’d been sent from the front room, and as he watched, the light sped along the wall and around each of the soldiers he’d placed on his shelf. The books were more difficult, and the light dappled there for minutes, caught by the words and confounded by the bright colours and the disheveled covers and uneven textures. He watched the lag, thinking of the stories the books held, and how they’d kept his attention at the time.

Once the sun had torn itself reluctantly from the shelf, it proceeded along the unbroken wall, the wallpaper proving no obstacle for such determined light. Then it ducked behind a bureau as his mother entered the room and when she left, it was gone. Although he knew it would likely be back tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the same. The sun would be a day older, and it would have already tasted from the books and caressed the soldiers on the shelf. Jaded, it would seek other rooms, and he pictured it fleet across the continent like the globe they kept downstairs near the linen closet. The sun would find other homes, the rooms of other boys, and the moment they’d shared would be replaced.

The weary sense that the world was passing him by, that time was flexible in the hands of others but clumsy in his, came over him, and even though he’d been called to lunch, he sat on the edge of the bed. His shoes were concrete weights on his feet, and he could see why mafia men had been buried at sea in cement. He was being dragged down to the centre of the earth, and above him hyenas were laughing like old women who’d sighted a thirty percent discount on bananas. In front of him was a vast plain, and anyone who walked it was sentenced to stay, until their bones decorated the sand and wispy grass and the vultures had inherited the feast.

When his mother called again, he was able to will his feet to move. He kicked at the concrete until it scattered on his floor like caked earth and mud from the irresistible trail near the ditch the day before. Once his feet were freed, it was a matter of loosening the grip the day had taken on his mind. He pointed to the figures on the shelf, to the wall where the sun had recently been cavorting, but all to no effect. Inspired finally, he switched on the radio, and while the vacant noise of talking splattered on his bedroom walls like a murder scene he was able to escape down the stairs and past the stacks of magazines his father kept piling on the table near the banister.

The living room was another matter, and he glanced inside before passing. Lumbering couches hid change in their folds and overwhelmed tables creaked their dismay. He had no time to help, not a moment to spare for the quarters from the last century, the dusty plenitude of the tabletop accumulation. A mission. He’d been called, and with the sense of duty strengthening his courage and his back, he needed to turn away from the distractions of boyhood. He was being treated like a man, so he needed to take on responsibilities. They might sit uneasy on his narrow shoulders, his back might bow under the collective weight of those who were depending on him, on his special set of skills, his ability to scale a tree and get a glimpse of the enemy, to rally the musket balls so that they’d be at hand when reloading—“Quit playing with your peas and eat your lunch”—his ability to build from raw materials when the fight required a fort.

The terror of warfare left him stuffed and heavy on his feet. He needed reinforcements, a stay in hospital where he might tell his stories, and where others might gather their courage to become the heroes in their own narrative. He needed time, he wanted to yell. Time to put together his memoirs, to write poetry from the field hospital, to duck and cover when a rattling pan was placed in the scalding water of his memories, to mourn those he had to leave behind. Fields of poppies stretched to the horizon, and boys he’d stood alongside were dust. He put a hand on his heart, his eyes drawn into the distance as he recalled the many card games, the hide-and-seek of warfare on the front, the final words they’d uttered before they’d succumbed to their injuries.

As afternoon dragged across the porch like a wounded dog, he couldn’t help but remember those faithful companions. Their sacrifice when Nazis stalked the halls at school, their ability to withstand the torture of the enemy when one of their number was hauled away for throwing books through a window, or breaking the latch on the back door of the school. They’d never talk, their eyes promised him from the folds of arms over them, but he knew the enemy had torments so recently denied that his side hadn’t even begun to contemplate them. They were lost, and he wished he could tell them that over the gulf that separated them.

Dinnertime was still a hundred years away when he resolved that he could do nothing more for the traitors who’d said names. He would have to go on alone, dragging heavy boots and a heavier heart through the mud of the battlefield. He would return a hero, but he’d know that there was more he should have done, more ways he could have foiled the enemy from behind their own fences, more rocks he could have pitched into the teacher’s yard, more gum chewed and lessons not learned. No one else would realize, but he would know, and that would be enough to harden his muscles into adulthood, to make his bicycle wobble when it ventured near the ditch, to make the fork tremble on its way to his mouth, and to have people take off their hats when he passed. He would have to be satisfied with that.

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Halfway Across the Country

I have driven across Canada over fifty times, although that measurement is contested by my friend. Everyone gets cranky when they are overtired or have had a bad day, or just when someone is annoying, but when some of my friends get argumentative, odd reasoning comes to the surface.

I have dealt with such irritability before, and likely I am guilty of the same unfortunate habit, but I have noticed the tendency to argue about unimportant (at least in terms of our lives) matters has a direct correlation to their temper of the moment. One friend wanted to have a late night argument about dark energy. I was taking an astronomy course and I exclaiming about the class content and he began to question me. We dug into the ideas a bit and before long it became clear that he wasn’t actually interested in knowing what I’d learned, so much as he wanted to find the thread which could be pulled and unravel the whole theory. I was talking about how the universe was relatively stable when I was a child, and then that was upturned when I learned the galaxies were moving gradually apart. When that was superseded by observations which indicated the galaxies were receding at an ever-increasing speed, our scientific understanding of the universe had to be amended.

I found that gradual addition to our scientific understanding fascinating, but for my friend, who’d also learned about the static universe when he was young, such capriciousness from the stolid scientific establishment just seemed flaky.

Even though he is not one of those who disbelieve the efficacy of vaccines or denigrate global warming science, in his urgency to prove me wrong—although I was merely poorly reporting what I’d learned and may have had many details incorrect—he used the same argument as those worthies who think the world is flat because they cannot imagine how it could be a globe. “If the scientists can’t figure out what is going on—if they keep changing their mind—why should we listen to them.” The other part of the argument was equally emotive. He argued that the way he’d first learned about the universe was somehow more accurate because he’d encountered that earlier.

My friend is far from a conspiracy theorist or even an anti-intellectual anti-science person. In fact, he demands proof for the work that he is engaged in and would dislike such arguments himself. That he became subject to them was more of a product of a late night and his crankiness than anything else. Once I realized that, I told him to call my professor if he was that interested. I wasn’t a good source, for my understanding of physics is that of a layperson rather than a serious scholar. Or as people say online, Google is your friend.

Another friend reacted similarly when he wanted me to explain how a non-literate culture is just as advanced as a literate one. He was rationalizing the so-called civilizing process of Christianising. He is in favour of missionary work, like many Christians, and when I said those cultures they were attempting to displace were valuable in their own right he objected. The tribes living in the forest are happy to have someone come with new gods, he claimed. And, as far as he was concerned, anyone who lives in a mud hut and cannot read does not have a culture worth saving. I tried talking about the different ways that culture knowledge have been transmitted, but his science background and religious upbringing didn’t allow him to see the value in such notions.

When he began to argue—while in the same type of mood—that I couldn’t possibly have travelled across Canada as many times as I’d claimed, then his argument grew more convoluted. The math became reliant on a semantic notion of what a trip across Canada is, and how that might compare to the many trips I had made. He knew I’d lived in both western and eastern Canada, and now in the centre, and that I was accustomed to travelling back and forth every year, at least for a decade or so, but he didn’t feel that was represented properly when I claimed to have driven across the country so many times.

He said that a trip from eastern Canada to the west was not a single trip, but rather half a trip. “Surely,” he scoffed, “you would be coming back. The only way it’s a trip across the country is if you make a round trip. That is a single trip across the country.”

I was as curious about this attempt to reason away his crankiness as I was the notion that science should be still, or his earlier statements that non-literate culture were not true cultures. Still trying to wrap my head around the way of thinking, I asked him, “So a trip from eastern Canada to the west is not a trip across the country for you?”

“No. because it is only half the trip. If you come back, then that’s a trip across Canada.”

“That will be disappointing for all those who move to western Canada. They will feel like they are crossing the country, and they will physically be crossing the country, going across the entire breadth of the country, travelling as many kilometres as it is across the country, but they will be wrong. If they never move back to the east, then they will leave half a trip hanging. They will never have actually crossed the country.”

He dug his heels in at that point and repeated his argument.

“So the trips I have done across Canada, you would say are only half a trip. So that means if I drove halfway across Canada, then it’s actually a quarter trip? That if you drove to the city (which was about sixty kilometres away) that you never actually drove to the city. You only drove halfway, because you have yet to drive back. In fact,” the implications of the notion were fascinatingly nonsensical—“if you only went halfway to town, or what you would call a quarter of the way, then drove back, you would only have driven halfway on your trip, even though you would have driven the equivalent of the entire distance.”

When the argument continued, which is one of the problems of both of us engaging when we’re talking nonsense, I gave him another example. He is far better at math than me, but I felt the equation was simple enough that I could handle it. “So the distance across Canada is five thousand kilometres. That’s what most people would claim.” He agreed to that premise. “So if I drove five thousand kilometres across the country, you would instead say that that wasn’t across, but rather halfway. Somehow the five thousand kilometres would be converted in your mind to two thousand five hundred, and all of those suckers who think they are driving five thousand—and their gas mileage and odometer readings would confirm the five thousand—they would be tricked?”

I don’t think he appreciated the math as much as I did, and the argument trickled off into a change of topic. The notion has remained with me however. I read the situation as a caution to us all, for we get just as irritable as a child who won’t go to sleep when it’s bedtime, and we need to watch ourselves for nonsense. As well, when we find someone making such illogical claims, then we might need to treat them as someone who cannot handle the social situation they are in. in that moment it might be better to say, Google is your friend.

Not many years ago, search engines did not exist, and information was much harder to locate. Many arguments in bars or over late night dinner parties almost came to blows. Now we may merely point our interlocutor to their handheld. Many a conversation that seemed so important just a few decades ago, has now disappeared into the smoke of ignorance dissolved when a search is so easy to do, and now someone who wants to argue about statements of fact is willfully causing trouble.

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The first time I encountered the notion of retirement and pensions was nearly twenty years ago when I was working at Worcester State College. I had just been hired, and although they only intended to give me full time hours for a term—which was only because they were in a bind and needed more people with PhDs—I was invited to a meeting about health care and paperwork. I learned two things about working there at the meeting. I didn’t really fit in, and the arcane and confusing type of work-sponsored private healthcare on offer was worse than just getting sick.

My difference in attitude became obvious in the discussion of health care, for, being from Canada, that was the first time I’d encountered the complacency the culture had about paying a private company to pay another system to provide a service. That has become more ubiquitous in more recent years, such as paying a private service to order and deliver a meal from a restaurant around the corner. While at one time we would call the restaurant directly, we now engage a third party, and pay them for the service instead of having the food delivered cheaper and quicker.

I was always struck by the American antipathy to paying taxes. They didn’t trust the government with their tax money, and instead would rather give their money to a for-profit private corporation. Even though the stated aim of the private company was keeping money for themselves, my American neighbours would still rather give them the cash than trust a government which they voted in and which ostensibly was responsible to them.

The impact and folly of that way of thinking was clearest to me when I was sitting at a toll booth. I sometimes waited twenty minutes, and everyone around me was doing the same. With our engines running we would creep ahead a few metres at a time, in order to pay a man in a booth fifty cents for the kilometres (or miles) we had driven. All of this, I thought at the time, just so you don’t have to pay taxes to the department of transport. They were so afraid of government mismanagement they would rather take hours out of their working life sitting in traffic. They wanted to make sure that fifty cents went to the corporation which could be trusted to pocket as much of it as they could.

The other aspect of the meeting which has remained with me was the discussion of retirement. I was in my thirties, and ostensibly beginning a professional job, so the talk of pensions made sense, but I felt like I was too young to worry about such things. I was only planning to work for a few years after the PhD so I could then take time off and travel. When they announced the next topic of conversation as pension plans, I glanced around me with a grin, expecting the others to share my reaction. Instead, my colleagues nodded and looked seriously through the paperwork, debating which 401(k) might best suit their needs even while they contemplated the delight of never having to work again. I didn’t trust that a job in my field would last any length of time, so I didn’t feel like the session affected my life, so I leaned back to watch as others filled out forms and debated returns.

I am older now, and I no longer view the notion of retirement with the same cavalier air. My job security hasn’t essentially changed from when I first started work, for the only thing which could make my employers uncomfortable quicker than the notion of offering a permanent position is the idea that employees might have benefits. I am, of course, somewhat at fault. I chose the field of English literature which both graduates many candidates every year, is fundamentally nepotistic in how hiring is done, and which universities increasingly devalue. My friend said recently that her bosses have no idea what her job entails; that is also true of English literature. If anyone thinks about the profession at all, they imagine glorified grammar teachers, overly persnickety about the finer points of punctuation even while they struggle to open a ziplock bag.

The paucity of positions aside, especially if one is unable to unwilling—in my case—to live in places humans have long since abandoned as unfeasible, I have also never been offered a pension plan since that early September after the turn of the millennium. Now that I reflect on other professions, where my friends have been paying into pension plans—and even more lucratively, have had their employers match that—I realize they are looking into a much earlier and more positive retirement than I can imagine.

Many of those people are contemplating whether they should take early retirement—at fifty-five—or wait for a more generous package at sixty. In my case, I have no such pension options. The money I have is only that which I have saved, and way of thinking about and my access to retirement is relatively unchanged. Now, instead of viewing the notion with the humour of youth, I see a closed door and a burned out lightbulb in the hall.

This came up again recently with my friend who works for the municipal government. She is imagining the delights of early retirement, and counting down the days until that glorious moment becomes possible. Although I am now fifty-six, I cannot imagine retiring just yet, so I asked her if she hated her job. No, she told me. She likes what she does, but she just wants more time to pursue her own interests.

Although she tells me she likes her job, the way it interferes with her life makes it sound as though it is not as enjoyable as she pretends. Instead the job is an impediment to her life. She has plans which the job will not allow, such as setting up a garden. For some reason, she has put those schemes on hold and waited until retirement to pursue them. A man in his sixties told me when I was yet a teenager that I should copy him. “Get a good job, and then save until you retire. Then you can do whatever you want.”

At the time I was horrified by the proposal. I was only sixteen, so I couldn’t imagine waiting all those years to live my life. I tried to picture his life, as he’d fed the chickens in the factory farm, waiting every day to buy the RV and go to Arizona in the winter. I determined that would not be me. I never imagined that I would get a job that I liked, since so much of the work I did at the time was drudgery, but I knew that I wouldn’t put my life on the shelf to be taken down only when I needed help with steps and ladders.

To my surprise, I ended up enjoying my work. I think that the work I do is important, and makes a contribution to my community, even though it is not considered valuable by the more pecuniary culture we have built. I would sometimes tell my students that the true measurement of whether you like your job is whether you would do it for free. Although I would want a thousand an hour for marking, I would teach for free—which is just as well since I am paid near starvation wages for the privilege. Like many people teaching on university contracts, I cobble together courses from more than one workplace and make it work. That means that without the high wages and free time of my colleagues, I have to think harder about my spending in order to save for my retirement, and that without job security, I am constantly on the edge of being unemployed.

In former years, I have viewed that as an advantage. Few people with a PhD would work for starvation wages (in fact, many that I went through graduate school with have left the field), so the market was not nearly as saturated as it is today that more people are thirsty. That meant I could take time off to pursue my own interests and perhaps be able to find work when I returned. I took a three week canoe trip down five hundred kilometres of river, built a wooden sailboat and plied the inner passage off Vancouver, BC, made a dozen trips overseas to Asia and South America, and built a cabin in the woods. I built the garden that my friend doesn’t have time for this summer when I was confined like many others in the various lockdowns, and built and modified furniture. I drove across Canada over fifty times, and explored remote logging roads and found hidden beaches in Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon. Amongst those projects, I have written fifty-six books, on topics ranging from academic works to autobiography, travelogues to poetry, and novels to short story collections.

Now that retirement is looming for my friends, and I hear them talking about what they will do with their time once they no longer are selling it for a sinecure, I hear the sixty-year-old chicken farmer. I have not completely been the grasshopper in the Ant and the Grasshopper story, for I have also saved money. I may not have as much income when I finally decide I’ve either had enough of my job or I cannot work any longer because I have been fired or become incompetent, but in the meantime I have turned my mind to every project which drew my attention, and never skimped on my life in favour of a future few people live to enjoy.

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Nutrient on the History Channel Show Alone

A central preoccupation of the show Alone is, naturally enough, how to get enough food to stay alive. The show has featured survivors who have made deadfall traps to catch mice, eaten slugs, and relied on seaweed to keep themselves going. Such theatre is normal enough, given the constraints of television and the short interest of the viewing public, but such survival strategies held little interest for me. I enjoyed those contestants who built cabins and shelters, made boats and rafts, but in general I watched for the curious mental challenges to being alone. That seemed to be the central feature the contestants had difficulty with. Much as how Covid-19 has made life difficult for people who live https://media.distractify.com/brand-img/tX9-c6O-a/480x252/alone-history-channel-1592521412306.jpgalone at the height of the pandemic, the contestants cracked at different times.

The similarity which most caught my interest was the terms they used for food. They almost never said they needed to catch enough fish to make a meal. Or that the greens they had gathered was a good supper. Instead, they used the highly artificial terminology to refer to their food. Nearly every plaint about their hunger, their lack of ability to hunt or https://hips.hearstapps.com/pop.h-cdn.co/assets/16/49/980x481/gallery-1481212507-screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-103631-am.jpg?resize=480:*forage, was expressed in terms of nutrient, protein, or calories. They constantly complained that they needed calories or that they could not go another day without adequate nutrition. I understood their worries, but not their common language. They were from very different backgrounds, classes, professions, and even countries, but none of them consistently called food by that word. Perhaps they thought they were using more scientific nomenclature, or that they would soon seem repetitious https://survivalskills.guide/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Alone_S1_Acast-participants-600x337.jpegif nearly every sentence they uttered used the word food, but whatever the case, I was disconcerted every time they used such stilted expressions for what was a simple plea about their hunger.

They didn’t need food, or to make a meal. They needed to gather nutrient or protein with enough vitamins to get some calories.

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My Writing in my Writing

Although I never made note of it before, I noticed when I was editing my latest book—The View from Vancouver—that I had slipped in references to my other books. At first I made little of it, and presumed I was thinking of and therefore evoking the small city near Vancouver and thathttps://static01.nyt.com/images/2018/03/25/magazine/25mag-hitchhikers1/25mag-hitchiker1-superJumbo.jpg reminded me of my other book.

When the girl and her adoptive father are crossing the country in Working for Ray, they make stops in a variety of cities to drop off screen printed t-shirts for sale. When they make the delivery in Hope, BC, my hitchhiker from The View from Vancouver is there. The incident is merely backdrop, but he notes a girl and man unloading a car as he walks toward the bus station.

I would have thought less of the incident if I hadn’t inserted a few more references into the book. https://www.victorstravels.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/hitchhiking-facing-1170x780.jpgHe sees a man driving a green car dropping off two other hitchhikers and watches them wave goodbye. That was me, as I drove west one year when I was building my boat. I had picked up two hitchhikers on the edge of Winnipeg, and my narrator saw only the end of a longer trip. Of course, writers normally describe events they have seen in their books, and such incidents from my life—such as when the cops watch the impromptu punker festival in Crab Park—are scattered through that book and others.

When my hitchhiker is going past a boat on a trailer behind an out of gas truck on a layby, I returned to the moment that I had misjudged the distance and had coasted with a dead motor into the layby at the foot of the Coquihalla Pass. My narrator later sees the driver, having hitched himself, arriving at the gas station in Hope. He stands beside me as I bought gas and heard me ask for a ride back to my boat. Similarly, the story my brother told me about a man who had attacked him after walking in his open door made it into the novel.

The odd parts of the novel are mostly those in which my narrator glimpses moments of the lives of other characters I have written. Perhaps that’s why I was remained surprised when he rents a cabin in the Yukon which is designed like the one I want to build and then reads one of my books he finds on the shelf. In the science fiction world such intertextuality is common. Authors will construct worlds or times in which their other narratives are known to their characters, as events which belong to that novelistic universe. That is not so common in realism.

In my latest novel, I can’t help but believe that such intrusions are proof of a kind of contamination, like the stories were bleeding into one another. As though the world of news broadcasts and statistics were somehow unreal, and that of my various books were joining the Greek chorus that is my fictional version of Canada.

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My Brother’s Dinner with Andre

I have a special relationship with Louis Malle’s 1981 Hollywood cum arthouse film My Dinner https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a5/My_Dinner_with_Andre_1981_film_theatrical_release_poster.jpgwith Andre. Although normally such a declaration would be followed by a revelation about how I was related to one of the actors, perhaps Wallace Shawn who plays an inoffensive man leading a mundane life, that is not the case. I was introduced to the film in a way that highlighted an aspect of interpretation, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I inadvertently learned firsthand about how little we understand ourselves.

I was visiting my oldest brother over thirty years ago when he mentioned that he’d seen the movie. “It was great,” he told me. “The whole movie takes place in a restaurant where two men are having dinner.” That turned out to be the only accurate thing my brother said about the film.

He continued, “And this one guy, who is just an ordinary guy trying to live his life, is meeting https://static.rogerebert.com/uploads/review/primary_image/reviews/my-dinner-with-andre-1981/EB19810101REVIEWS101010347AR.jpgwith this pompous bore of a man who goes on about philosophical bullshit and nonsense and how special he is and how he travels all over. So full of shit. And the other guy sits there and listens patiently even though he can’t stand it, and then finally, right near the end of the film, the little guy just devastates him with just a few words. Really puts him in his place and shows him how full of shit he is. Amazing.”

I had never seen the film so I had nothing to say about his description, although my brother’s derision for the traveller and his sympathy for the normal man who had to sit through a pretentious diatribe stood out. https://i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/Images/Dynamic/i320/mydinnerwithandre_thelifeofaplaywright_vd_223x104_02282014023021.jpg?w=400When I left my brother’s place that evening, the description stayed with me. Despite his positioning of himself as a stolid family man and his jealousy of my seemingly footloose university student lifestyle, I never thought he might be talking about himself. If I had thought to it, I might have considered that he was trying to make a statement by his way of talking about the film. Instead, if I thought of it at all, I presumed the film would be as he described and that its plot would be pointed toward the comeuppance of the windbag.

If you know the film, or have read a description of it online, you know that my brother’s description could not be further from the truth. As my first year sociology professor, Dr. Pepperdene once said in class, “it is not so much whether someone is right, but their mistakes can be very interesting.” My brother’s gross simplification of what the film was doing, as well as the roles of the characters, said much more about himself and his way of thinking about the world than it did the film which happened to fall victim to his fantastical reading.

When I watched the film with some friends a few years later, I waited for the subtle derision that would indicate that Wallace Shawn had enough of his friend Andre Gregory’s bombast. Likewise I waited for the empty philosophical platitudes which would best describe Andre’s character. Instead, I saw a film in which two very unalike friends meet, and through a long discussion conducted with mutual respect and delight, they both come to a better understanding of their own world and that of their friend. Far from Wally’s delight in the schadenfreude-fueled insult, or my brother’s description of Wally’s satisfaction at denigrating his friend, I saw instead a pleasantly https://i.pinimg.com/originals/81/ae/4d/81ae4d0a1905dc94b22fc85b4c6a9f1a.jpgdistracted man who takes the train back to his apartment and wife while pondering his childhood and the many different paths his life might have taken.

Once I saw the film, waiting all the while for the penultimate scene in which Wally destroys his erstwhile opponent, it gradually dawned on me that my brother not only missed the point of the film, but also saw an entirely different film of his own creation. Seeing in Wally’s character aspects of his own life, and in Andre’s character those people who he imagined to secretly despise him, he saw a film in which he had the final word.

My brother, like many of us in the family, had a poor start in life, and perhaps that drove him to choose the safe path when he was tempted by the impetuousness of Andre’s life. Confined by his own fear and conformist urge to exhibit success, he became more driven by money and status than trips down the Amazon River would have allowed. https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BNjNiYjYyOTYtYzM5Ny00ZTdhLWE0MmYtZWVmNmEwN2UzNTQwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzU1NzE3NTg@._V1_CR0,45,480,270_AL_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_.jpgInstead, he bragged about his house, about the pay from his job, and even though he was usually broke, he thought of himself as the success of the family. Importantly, that success was measured by what others in the family did not have. If someone was travelling then that affront to his staid nature defined the other person, and if someone were poor, that confirmed his wealth.

His hatred of the Andre figure in the film is easier to see if we remember that he so thoroughly identified with only a few aspects of Wally’s life. The simple conformist life loomed much larger in my brother’s mind than the middle aged man’s reflection on his childhood, than his rapt attention while his friend told of his adventures, and he could see nothing of the relationship the two shared, despite their differences in personality. He saw perhaps ten percent of the film that he claimed to love, and that ten percent, since it was all about him and not about the film, was wonderful. He looked into the mirror of the filmic self and found himself grimacing in dismay about the world around him, and that affirmed every lack he saw in other people which he used to build up himself.

I think there is a lesson to us all here. We continually go through life looking for the narrative we expect and that blinds us to the narrative that is there. Car accident witnesses, caught in the heat of the emotive moment, see a dozen different things from a dozen different angles. They have as many stories about the cause as they have eyes, and they will even argue in the face of dash camera videos.

My brother managed to ignore https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-pWttlorWVpw/WD7jg1-o-zI/AAAAAAAAHZ8/rB8Qhue4hq8t1zwn9mCVQojbBZewB8EVQCK4B/s1600/1433719456_3.jpgWally’s obvious delight in Andre’s stories, their shared interest in philosophical questions, and the close bonding the two share. In order to get his fantasy of their mutual discord, my brother focused on their discussion about how possible Andre’s life was for ordinary people. He chose to ignore Wally’s re-examination of his life on the way home from the restaurant, and the film’s lack of resolution just to he could justify the normal man—and Wally is anything but—sticking it to the egghead intellectual. His need for an ugliness in the film drowned out its beauty, and he merely told a story about his own insecurities and jealousies, his willingness to ignore evidence to further emotional goals, and how he really felt about his life.

I think he would have been happier along the Amazon River, at least for a little while, and then when he watched the film he could have told himself the story about how Andre subtly undermines Wally’s pathetic life. He could have twisted the story to suit his new version of himself, although both versions reflect the same face.https://s3.amazonaws.com/criterion-production/images/4450-7ce147c79652accea6d1927c8a3ec788/current_702_152_original.jpg

My brother’s protest to the contrary, My Dinner with Andre is a wonderfully captured film about two men who exchange ideas and appreciation, and who both leave the dinner enriched by the experience.

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Thai Red Curry Pumpkin

I never cook with a recipe, although I occasionally record what ingredients I have combined to make a dish. More often, I have no idea what it will taste like until it’s done, and by then I have moved on to the next project. I’m never even sure that I can duplicate the taste, remember each ingredient and their order.

The Thai red curry pumpkin is an easier dish to make in some ways, for it is made in a crock pot. That means the ingredients are put in without a cooking order and then cooked for a few hours. I took photos of my cooking in order to remember the venture this time, and so I am ready with a recipe of sorts.

1.5 cup of fresh mushrooms
1 cup of onions
3 cups of pumpkin
1 cup, or three small potatoes
1.5 cups of carrots
1.5 tablespoon of garlic
1 block of tofu
1 large tin of whole tomatoes
1 small tin of tomato paste
1.5 cup of broccoli
.75 cup of green onion
2 tablespoons of Thai red curry paste
1 tablespoon of dried sweet basil
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
.5 teaspoon of ground sage
1 tablespoon of ground ginger
1.5 tablespoon of chopped ginger
.3 cup of juice from the artichoke heart bottle
.3 cup of juice from the banana pepper bottle

The point of using the pumpkin is obvious to anyone who has been following my Instagram life this summer. I wasn’t sure if I was going to leave the city all summer, so on the chance that I was, I dug up the yard and planted pumpkin, spaghetti squash, carrots, green beans, potatoes, rhubarb, raspberries, swiss chard, kale, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, lemon basil, and chick peas. I have several large pumpkins left over from a crop of fourteen, although I have nearly eaten—in three cases given away—the sixteen squash. Because of this cornucopia, I have been making squash bread and pumpkin apple crumble, although that is a story for another time.

In this recipe, the potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, and green tomatoes came from my garden. I piled it all in the slow cooker, added some fluids, and waited at least five hours. It took some time for the cooker to bring the food up to temperature, but once it did, and it was nearly done—which can be identified by the delicious smell of cooking food in the house—I unplugged the cooker and went to bed. By the next morning, everything was cooked and the pot was still slightly warm. That is more of a testament to the amount of food and the well-insulated pot than it is to how warm my house is.

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Nepotism and the Publishing Industry

The writing community industry is small enough in Canada that even someone like me, who is https://res.cloudinary.com/jerrick/image/upload/fl_progressive,q_auto,w_1024/zvbz8xx4nh6gvm8fmlui.webptangentially related to the literary world, can often see names I recognize in literary magazines. I also check which books are published by which presses, for that gives me useful, if depressing information about the lay of the land. Although at first blush this sounds as though I am eagerly celebrating the successes of Canadian writers, I am actually more interested in what polite people call networking and the rest of us call nepotism.

Because I have known some Canadian writers personally, I followed their career with interest when they published their work with presses that happened to be where they were living at the time. That intrigued me https://miro.medium.com/max/875/0*iYH2f5abCUS2m4PP.jpgbecause I usually knew they were volunteering or working at the press or had a friend or spouse who had given them the nod. Perhaps because I had been burned by the literary production enterprise, I took a prurient delight in such suggestive coincidences that pointed to nepotism. That opportunities like that are made available in the publishing industry doesn’t shock people who know the trade, but the industry’s blunt flaunting of the practice is sometimes surprising overt.

A friend of mine told me I was overly cynical when I suggested that who you know in the publishing world has as much to do with your success as the craft. Only when she unsuccessfully tried to escape from the leg-hold trap of nepotism and patronage—the press founded by her friend which had published her two books—did her way of thinking about the https://i.cbc.ca/1.5440178.1579904563!/fileImage/httpImage/image.png_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/canada-reads-2020-authors.pngacademic press change. She had always pled that her friend wasn’t necessarily a part of the selection process, but sensitive about the optics, she still looked further afield for her next book. The community was small, and her relationship with the co-founder was well known, at least locally.

She began by sending poems to a variety of literary journals. She wanted, understandably, to have portions of her book published before she shopped it around to the small presses. She sent poems to Malahat Review http://www.malahatreview.ca/images/covers/199_cover_400.jpgas well as other literary journals whose names I have forgotten, but she was dismayed to find many of them didn’t even bother to reply to her submission. She knew Malahat was famous for its arrogant disregard, but she still believed that her reputation on the Canadian literary stage would at least warrant a form rejection.

She tried other literary magazines with similar results. The Canadian literary elite had moved on. She knew some important names from years before, but they didn’t have the clout she needed to get read at the journals where she was submitting her work. Most Canadian writers work at our universities, which both gives them access to literary journals—since the journals are located at universities—and means that they know each other. Canada only has a handful of degree-granting institutions https://i.cbc.ca/1.5234674.1565622870!/fileImage/httpImage/image.png_gen/derivatives/16x9_940/cbc-book-fall-preview-canadian-fiction.pnglarge enough to have their own presses, so most of them haunt the same halls. They sit on panels which broker literary awards, and they are part of the funding mechanism that feeds the small presses, even as they are coincidentally the beneficiaries of much of that funding.

My friend became snippy when I told her that I had grave misgivings about the system of nepotism literary rejection letterswhich controlled the slush pile. She disagreed when I said I was so disappointed in the quality of the journal’s rejection letters that I’d given up on the enterprise entirely. They weren’t serious about their work, I told her, but she assured me—at least at the time—that my plaints about the connection between networking and publication were unfounded. A year later she was agreeing with me. The journals had snubbed her, and she realized that the connections she’d taken for granted—likely real friends in her case, not just useful relationships—had disappeared. She said no more about her search for another press, and soon her third book was published by the same press.

I also encountered another university connected writer who was writing a book which he was sure would be wildly popular. It struck the right tone, it was topical, and could be marketed to a known demographic. He bragged about movie optioning even while he was writing the first draft. He flew to New York nearly every month to meet with the publisher and editors, and they would discuss the size of print run and translation options. This was all happening without a book in hand.

This apparent success story is undermined by the fact that the author had never written a book. In fact, he’d never published a short story. The publisher had never seen the book, had only heard it described, and they were already setting up the bank account in the Cayman Islands. Such excitement about a book which didn’t exist, as well as such reach for an unknown author, implied nepotism to me. He worked alongside colleagues whose multiple books had never drawn such attention, but they’d also never been as cutthroat about making useful connections. He went on to win a prestigious prize while their books were merely mentioned or shortlisted. Although nothing was said, I couldn’t help but think that they knew how the trick had been done. No press would risk publishing a first book from an unknown author if they weren’t connected, and the shortfall in his prose was made up for by advertising and public relations work.

When I meet aspiring authors who are so confident, I want to know their secret. I’m not as interested in their stories about mornings spent writing and evenings editing. I want to know their real secret. Similarly, a major prize-winning book from twenty years ago was not that well written. In fact it was trite and downright cringe worthy in spots. I wondered, when I met the author, how she had managed its publication and then later won the award. Meeting her did little to inform me. She was incredibly self-centred, and as far as she was concerned she’d earned her credits.

I asked her what she thought of the university, and she heard, “What do you think of you and me?” She thought my inquiry about her new writer in residence gig was a come on. I laughed when she repeated what she’d heard, and then told her what I’d meant more explicitly. When she talked about her work at a reading, she was a little more forthcoming. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/r055kZrYZdM/maxresdefault.jpgShe name-dropped several major writers in Canada, and confessed they’d been friends as much as they had mentors. She was only posturing for the crowd, showing how she’d been hobnobbing with the hoi polloi, so she didn’t realize that she was exposing the relationships which had led to the award. She gushed that they’d taken such an interest in her work that they had edited it for her. That explained the prose as well as the award. Such writers would be on the panels which judge such awards, and even if they were not, their https://www.gg.ca/sites/default/files/styles/media_search_item_image/public/media/excellence/ggawards_in_visual_and_media_art_gg05-2017-0071-001.jpg?itok=MKWbdGmTfriends would be.

I might have embarrassed her when I laughed about her guess that I was attracted to her, for she had little more to do with me from that point forward. That in itself is not so unusual, for I recognized the type from the many hallways they haunt at every university. Their first questions are about your status, and when they discover that you are not useful, the plant gets pinched off and the potential relationship dies on the vine. I’ve learned to look for the type over the years. The aspiring writers who eagerly seek the company of the mentor who can give them a leg up, and the young women and men who lay a sticky track of flirtation in order to get their novel read by a press.

Several scandals have rocked the Canadian literary world lately about such https://www.universityaffairs.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/UA-MarApr-2020_Feature_CanLit_488X488_A.jpgmatters, and although many mercenary mentors used their connections to deny publication to those who refused to bed them, I was more interested in the opposite problem. The ones who got published, and how that worked in the system. Like questions about bribery or money laundering, finding the truth about such the system can be difficult. The practices are illegal or immoral, and potentially very embarrassing for all concerned if they are to be found out.

On one level, the publication selection process is at fault. The literary journals in general in the west—and I would include the United States in this statement—are particularly poor at giving all of their submissions equal airing. They receive so many submissions, and their staff—especially in the lower tiers—is typically made up of volunteers or 7 Ways to Keep from Burning Out at Your Summer Internship | Her Campusstudent interns, so work from an unknown warrants only the most cursory glance. The students bulk-read hundreds of submissions looking for names they’ve been ordered to select, and they basically discard regular submissions unread.

To ignore the new writer is to corrupt the purpose of the publishing enterprise, and undermines the most valuable service the journals offer. The increasingly rare Holy Grail—for a writer at least—is a journal which might reject the story but has an employee or volunteer write a cogent comment about the story’s faults. Any good writer knows they are often too close to their work to see its flaws. Unless they belong to a writing community, or are willing to lose friends by asking them to read, they frequently work alone. Without feedback, the writer cannot improve, and if nothing else, the craft of writing is a constant search for ways to improve.

When I still had some misplaced https://thefiddlehead.ca/sites/default/files/FH280.jpgfaith in the system, I sent a magic realist story to The Fiddlehead. The story was set in New Brunswick, like the journal, so I thought it might find a home there. The story is about hundreds of dogs chasing deer through the woods until they become a national spectacle. They are joined by an increasingly unhealthy braggart teen, and the event balloons beyond both physics and logic, until the dogs start to quit. The story is strange, admittedly, and maybe a poor fit for the middle class journals, but I was dismayed that the rejection letter was brief, dismissive, and insulting. Rather than print out a form letter, the undergraduate student who managed the slush pile for the journal scribbled onto a post-it note that “There sure were a lot of dogs.” I had printed out the manuscript, followed the by-times onerous rules which each journal slightly adjusts to individualize its submissions, and included a self-address stamped envelope for the answer as well as my manuscript. The manuscript was never returned, and the smaller envelope only included the post-it note. That was nearly the last time I submitted to the literary journals. That experience neatly symbolized the enterprise, and contrasted vividly with the feedback I had received from science fiction journals.

Although they do not garner the same academic acclaim, the science fiction journals often pay better than the well-heeled literary journals, and accept more experimental work. Rather than exclusively focusing on the concerns of the middle classes and rigid realism, or a shallow notion of avant-garde learned while writing for a MFA, the science fiction journals like Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and Analog publish little known authors as well as those who guarantee sales. In terms of their feedback, at least in my experience, they were more thoughtful and insightful.

On one occasion, the editors at Strange Horizons sent me the critiques from three different readers. Each comment was well considered and observant, and I took their critique to heart when I revised the story. Even though they didn’t accept the story, they took the time to ensure I was on the right track, and pointed me back to the path they thought might best lead to publication. Such experiences ruined me for the academic literary journals, which normally demanded print submissions—and therefore upfront financial investment—and returned unread manuscripts or, more commonly, a form letter in a self-addressed stamped envelope. The return on such investments, both financial and in terms of time, was worthless even if they replied.

I had always read through the offerings of such journals to see what was being published, but as I began to look more carefully at the work they included, the problem became more evident. Beyond the opaque question of nepotism, the journals publish work that interests a rather narrow band of readers. Their middle class stories are by times witty and even clever, but work which expands those boundaries does not often find its way into their pages.

In the interest of full disclosure, for those of you who haven’t read my books, I should admit that I am partially at fault for dismaying the slush pile https://www.economist.com/sites/default/files/images/print-edition/20170701_BKP001_0.jpgreaders. I have very little interest in the trials and tribulations of the wealthier classes. I do not write for the middle and upper classes, and rarely write about them. When I do, the portrait is not always flattering. I have written so many stories—a few hundred by this point—that inevitably some of them concern picket-fence realities, and the reaction I get from such stories is worth recounting here when discussing the predictable nature of the Canadian literary world’s interests.

I approached a mentor one time about looking at some of my stories. He was well known in Canada’s incestuous literary world, and I hoped to make the nepotism work for me. Even though he hadn’t fulfilled his promise of a reference letter years earlier, I thought he might like my stories https://i.pinimg.com/originals/9d/2a/b3/9d2ab3dde52b62ba46fc3be2b7a8ae7c.pngwell enough to put in a word with his friends at various presses. I gave him four or five stories to read, and so the more acerbic ones didn’t put him off, I included my story “Following Fish.” One of the most middle class stories I’ve written, it tells the story of Frank, a tooth-grinding man on vacation who swims farther and farther into the ocean in an attempt to escape his life. Predictably, the grand old master thought that story was worthy of publication, and he advised me to send it to a literary journal. He was no more help to me than he’d been when I’d waited on a reference letter, and merely told me to format my story and mail it. The other stories apparently didn’t warrant mention, and that interaction cemented my impression of him as well as helped me come to my current understanding of the literary journals’ rather specialized interests.

I ran this experiment again, for I am nothing if not a fool. This time I approached the writer in residence at the university. I included a few stories, and the man—another well connected local author—glossed over the other stories in favour of “Following Fish.” He told me to send it to a local journal, and he promised to mention it to the editor when he met him for lunch later that day. Naively, I printed the story and mailed it to the journal. Two weeks later I told him that I’d taken his advice. He didn’t say anything for a moment and then sheepishly confessed that he’d forgotten to mention me to the editor. He wished me luck with the endeavour, and assured me that they might take the story.

I learned two useful lessons from this interaction. By his sheepishness, I knew my form rejection was guaranteed. More importantly, I had some insight into how the system worked. Perhaps unknowingly, he as https://image.freepik.com/free-photo/young-man-whispering-secret-his-friend-s-ear_23-2148160200.jpggood as told me that prospective submissions should be preceded by someone who is connected to the editor. Have he or she put in a good word, and the managers of the slush pile would know what name to search for. If such wasn’t the case, I was convinced, he would never have guiltily admitted he hadn’t fulfilled his promise. He knew he was signing the death warrant of my story, and he had just enough shame to admit it.

After such experiences I began to concentrate more on the non-literary journals. The editors were more forthcoming with feedback—even if they were swamped with work and operating on a shoestring in the absence of government funding—and they seemed to consider work on the basis of its own merit. That doesn’t mean I had picked the lock that would lead me to publications, but occasionally I received an acceptance letter, and I was nearly always assured of a respectful rejection. One editor, or slush pile manager, wrote to me about a story I’d submitted in order to tell me he wanted to have it in the anthology, but it was so strange that he wasn’t sure it would fit. He was compelled by the story, and he wished to keep it for a few more months to evaluate its fit. Such interactions seemed genuine, and although they were not always positive in terms of publication, they were almost always considerate rather than manipulative, and prompt rather than derisive.

Recently, I have become interested in these stories of nepotism. That is partially due to a disturbing essay written by one of my contacts about the matter, and also because I recently submitted a story to an anthology on a whim. After a few months, I received a form rejection—which didn’t shock me—but having submitted to their press meant that I was added to their email list. Therefore, when they sent out notices about the pending publication, I was able to glance over their offerings.

In an update from two months ago they joyfully revealed that they had received more https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/assets/users/admin_1/admin_1-asset-503782d5de326.jpegthan seven hundred submissions. They would need more time to evaluate the submissions, the editor suggested, and he guessed at a date we might receive notice. Another month went by and another breathless email gushed about how much they were enjoying the submissions. I wasn’t too concerned over the eventual rejection. At least ninety percent of my stories were rejected, and my ego had never been married to the written text. As well, I knew I was competing with submissions from all over the world. The chances that they would take my story were slim. In the end, they only accepted ten stories. At three to five thousand words per story that seemed to be a slim volume, but I didn’t trouble myself any more about something which was so expressly not my concern.

When another notice of pending publication promised a glimpse of the book cover, I began to look into the press more closely. I might not even have paused over an included photograph a year earlier, but such was the Covid ubiquity that a photograph of the three interviewed https://resize.hswstatic.com/w_1024/gif/three-people-photo-orig.jpgauthors together stood out. The only way they could have been photographed together was if they all lived in the same small town. People were not traveling, and even if their work demanded it, they would certainly not travel for a photo shoot. Pondering the coincidence that three out of the ten authors were from the same town, I began to wonder about its population. I initially guessed the town where the press was located had a population of around sixty thousand. I had visited many years earlier, and was relying on my fuzzy memory as well as extrapolating from the size of nearby cities. I consoled myself that three writers out of ten from the same small town might look suggestive, but it wasn’t impossible. A quick search on the population statistics disabused me of that notion. The total population was much closer to fourteen thousand.

Mere chance does not https://www.cardcow.com/images/set334/card01006_fr.jpgfavour such a coincidence. Out of more than seven hundred submissions from all over the world, three people from the same small town—and the writing community would definitely know each other—had their stories chosen. Such a happenstance forcibly reminded me of interactions I’d had with people who ran such small presses. I remembered how they’d had friends submit work, even while others laboured to crack into that rather exclusive—in connections if not in taste—market.

If the stories are of equal quality, then we naturally want to support our friends, but the implications of such numbers leaves a bad taste on the page. The rest of the writers were nearly all white, Canadian, and most of them were from the same province. I wasn’t sure how many others lived in the same small town, for information was scarce on most of them.

I began to dig a bit deeper, seeing what other information I’d overlooked before I’d begun to take an interest. The owner of the press bragged that the over seven hundred submissions had taken him a month to read. I did the math. He read twenty-four stories a day. https://www.abc.net.au/cm/rimage/7917782-16x9-xlarge.jpg?v=3

If the average story was four thousand words in length—they asked for stories between three and five thousand words—then the overworked editor read ninety-six thousand words every day for a month. He read a novel’s worth of short stories each day, as well as evaluated them before moving on to the next story. Every day for a month. What a paragon of the publishing industry that he would devote so much of his time to his readers.

I don’t want to pretend that my story could compete with seven hundred from around the world, or even that the editor would go through the slush pile as carefully as writers might wish, but I was increasingly intrigued about the circumstances which led to the three writers selected being from the same small town. In their interviews, two of them freely admitted that was their first publication. Another author from the same province said the same.

I looked further into the press. If I had done that before submitting, I would have seen the lone four books in their catalogue as a warning. One book was authored by the press’ owner, another is a novel by one the interviewed writers, who also happened to be an editor at the same press. His book cover was designed by one of the other editors, who edited the anthology I’d submitted to, and that anthology was the third book. The only book which didn’t look like a vanity project was a walking guide, although in an interview with the author, the press owner revealed the man was his friend.

When I was looking for information about the various authors involved in the project, I found that one of the only places that advertised the anthology was a blog. CBC news had carried a brief story about the anthology, but the blog gave more information about its pending publication. I became curious about who was writing the blog. It shared a name with a real literary journal, although it wasn’t associated with it, but those well-trod coattails made it difficult to track. The blog listed no author, but its various news stories provided better counsel. The blog seemed especially interested in the exploits of the same small press. It carried a story about the anthology, as well as introduced the press’ other meagre listings.

I looked through the bios of the blog’s nine followers—for the author of a blog who wants others to follow it will almost certainly follow it themselves. One of the followers was the same editor at the small press who’d had his story accepted in the anthology. Given that the blog advertised other books from that press amongst its more newsy stories, it was likely penned by that same editor. His background in journalism confirmed that suspicion, as much as that was possible, for the blog read more like a local news source than a personal account.https://mllj2j8xvfl0.i.optimole.com/Lsv2lkg.z_rT~36d2f/w:auto/h:auto/q:98/https://s15165.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/WP-UI-1.png

I am deliberately obscuring the name of the press, as well as that of the editors and authors, in this examination. Partially, I am concealing such details in order to save the press the embarrassment in case my few readers uncover the perfidy. Mostly, I am being deliberately vague—even to the point of distorting my diction—because this story is not about a particular press. It is merely a case study in a system of nepotism and self-publishing that is rampant in the Canadian literary scene. My friend didn’t get her poems published by other presses because she wasn’t connected to the editors, and the press which accepted her book published it for the same reasons. The other man who had never written anything had his book optioned before he even had a book, while the award-winning woman pronounced who she’d known who had ensured her book’s success.

Although the proponents of small presses vehemently proclaim their legitimacy, in many cases they are nothing more than vanity presses in disguise. They are edited by friends, they publish each other’s work, and they ensure their mill grinds only their own flour.https://ih1.redbubble.net/image.1420801703.5967/poster,504x498,f8f8f8-pad,600x600,f8f8f8.jpg

I offer this anecdote to enquire whether the publishing system has been so hijacked that the major presses are printing—if not editing—Fifty Shades of Grey, and the small presses are publishing their friends for academic credit even though the print runs generally produce no more than a few dozen books.

The true losers in this enterprise—although I am tempted to mention the overlooked writers—are the readers. They wonderingly plough through stories written as academic experiments even while they puzzle over how such work was published. https://smartcdn.prod.postmedia.digital/leaderpost/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/254833865-books2902201-w-1-e1583013659784.jpg?quality=90&strip=all&w=400The books published because of nepotism disappear after a few years, when they have done their work of securing tenure or supporting the career of someone’s fawning friend. Then their tiny print run ends, and they go out of print. The presses know what they have done, but the evidence is buried through a complicit lack of interest and poor sales.

“We’re not trade publishers,” they proudly proclaim. “We only publish the best.” https://static.miraheze.org/tesminadventureswiki/thumb/4/40/Burning_Warehouse.jpg/400px-Burning_Warehouse.jpgThey shout this to each other in a closed room over wine even while the warehouse smoulders and the unsold books are alight.

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